Monday, October 15, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #25: Joy in the Morning

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'Good morning, good morning,' I said. 'I want a book.'

Of course, I ought to have known that it's silly to try and buy a book when you go to a book shop. It merely startles and bewilders the inmates. The motheaten old bird who had stepped forward to attend to me ran to form.

'A book, sir?' he said, with ill-concealed astonishment.

'Spinoza,' I replied, specifying.

This had him rocking back on his heels.

'Did you say Spinoza, sir?'

'Spinoza was what I said.'

He seemed to be feeling that if we talked this thing out long enough as man to man, we might eventually hit on a formula.

'You do not mean The Spinning Wheel?'

'No.'

'It would not be The Poisoned Pin?'

'It would not.'

'Or With Guns and Camera in Little Known Borneo?' he queried, trying a long shot.

'Spinoza,' I repeated firmly. That was my story, and I intended to stick to it.
from Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse

Today, 126 years ago in Guildford, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was (prematurely) born, and not a moment too soon. Despite his solid English roots, he eventually proved to be, like Guildford's other most famous son, not quite of this world, at least when it came to his sublimely humorous and cheering literary output. Let's celebrate the quasquicentennial plus one of the Great Man by plucking one of my very favorite of his books of the ol' Wodehouse bookshelf, the wonderful and witty Joy in the Morning (1947). (Really, do it along with me—you shan't regret it!)

Like so many of Wodehouse's books, this one is also known by its American title of Jeeves in the Morning. It's perhaps not curious that the book was actually published in America the previous year (1946), almost nine months before its UK publication: remember Wodehouse was still very much reviled in the United Kingdom in the immediate post-war years following his genial but ill-advised broadcasts for the Nazis after he was taken prisoner of war. In 1947 he and his wife traveled directly from France to the United States, and he remained the rest of his days in Long Island.

Though the American publisher Doubleday can be commended on publishing Wodehouse's new novel first, I still have to quibble with their choice of new title. Sure, it makes a certain amount of commercial sense: gets the Jeeves name right up there, front and center, to ensure fast-moving sales right off the post-War bookstore shelves. But they're ignoring the very lyrical opening scene of the novel that gives the British version its title, which sets the stage by looking not forward to the future but back to the events Bertie and Jeeves appear to have only just fortuitously escaped from:
After the thing was over, when peril has ceased to loom and happy endings had been distributed in heaping handfuls and we were driving home with our hats on the side of our heads, having shaken the dust of Steeple Bumpleigh from our tyres, I confessed to Jeeves that there had been moments during the recent proceedings when Bertram Wooster, though no weakling, had come very near to despair.

'Within a toucher, Jeeves.'

'Unquestionably affairs had developed a certain menacing trend, sir.'

'I saw no ray of hope. It looked to me as if the blue bird had thrown in the towel and formally ceased to function. And yet here we are, all boomps-a-daisy. Makes one think a bit, that.'

'Yes, sir.'

'There's an expression to the tip of my tongue which seems to me to sum the whole thing up. Or rather, when I say any expression, I mean a saying. A wheeze. A gag. What, I believe, is called a saw. Something about Joy doing something.'

'Joy cometh in the morning, sir?'

'That's the baby. Not one of your things, is it?'

'No, sir.'

'Well, it's dashed good,' I said.

And I still think there can be no neater way of putting in a nutshell the outcome of the super-sticky affair of Nobby Hopwood, Stilton Cheesewright, Florence Craye, my Uncle Percy, J. Chichester Clam, Edwin the Boy Scout and old Boko Fittleworth—or as my biographers will probably call it, the Steeple Bumpleigh Horror.
How can you not read on from there? In my book, that's one of the great literary teases of all time, and I frantically bury my ringéd nose into the book and dive in to the narrative proper in order to find out what truly happened to that amazing cast of characters and what happens next. Really, it's the most convincing argument to turn the page since "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

Let me get this out of the way right at the start, or as close to the start as I've been able to fit it in: Joy in the Morning is a true work of genius. This is one of my very favorite of all Wodehouse books, and many critics who have a good deal more letters after their name have argued that it's his best, period. I chalk this up to Wodehouse's usual care and attention to writing and rewriting until the thing is pitch-perfect, and I need to read some of my Wodehouse biographies, because wonder if he spent his time in the captivity of the Germans planning and plotting Joy. If you've been reading these Wodehouse a Week reviews carefully you'll notice that while I've been complimentary about every one of his books, once in a while I point out when he misses an opportunity to tie a plot together or use a character to his fullest or to pace the thing at a leisurely stroll but without a single break in the action. Joy in the Morning has all that, and in spades. I've yet to work my way completely through the canon, but at least so far I've got to say this novel is the epitome of his writing. This is the Wodehouse novel you chuck at an alien interested in learning about the earth culture. Don't get me wrong: they're all good. But Joy is gooder than good...it's goodest.

The plot is probably one of his tightest and most intricate, but there's not a wasted scene or a spare moment that doesn't go somewhere. The portion I quoted at the top of this post—Bertie's adventures in a bookstore—aren't simply Wodehouse having a bit of fun at the expense of his bread-and-butter, but it occurs early on in the novel as the set-up to the whole goings-on. The bookstore clerk thinks perhaps instead of Spinoza (which Bertie was buying for Jeeves, of course), maybe Bertie wants Spindrift, a foul serious modern novel whose jacket "showed a female with a green, oblong face sniffing at a purple lily," and who should be the author of Spindrift but Bertie's ex-fiancée (one of the many), Florence Craye. Florence is delighted Bertie's apparently buying the book and autographs it with love to him. Florence is engaged to beefy bruiser G. D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright, a former Eton schoolmate of Bertie's and now village police constable down at Steeple Bumpleigh, the county seat where resides Bertie's Aunt Agatha (she who chews on broken glass) and Uncle Percy. Being the jealous sort, Stilton suspects Bertie of putting the moves on Florence (the furthest thing from his mind). A book autographed with love to Bertie isn't going to help dissuade Stilton otherwise...

And really, it gets much more complicated after that, too much so to sum up in my review here, but Wodehouse never baffles or loses us, so skillful is his juggling of the varied and intertwined plots: Boko Fittleworth (another school chum of Bertie's) wooing Uncle Percy's daughter Nobby (short for Zenobia) against Percy's wishes, Percy's need to meet in private to conduct a lucrative business deal with American shipping magnate J. Chichester Clam, Nobby's pesky brother, the Boy Scout Edwin, who is so far behind on his daily good deeds that he's doing last Thursday's today, a country fancy dress masquerade ball, a country cottage that burns to the ground five minutes after Bertie enters it for the first time, a misdirected brooch, an empty tube of anchovy paste, a policeman's uniform, and of course Jeeves, calmly reining over it all and solving the problem casually and directly like a conjurer giving no sign that the solution requires any effort at all.

Every element is intricately connected to the others and drives the rest of the characters like clockwork gears meshing against one other. To continue the clock metaphor, this is a plot that's wound up tight as a watch spring, and while Wodehouse never lose control of it, he does show us exactly what happens when the tension is taken just to the breaking point and then unwinds, very rapidly, in an extended but breezily joyous mid-point scene where Bertie attempts a daring midnight burglary on Uncle Percy's estate of Steeple Bumpleigh. He's (reluctantly) giving Boko a chance to chase him away and win favor with Uncle Percy, but it all goes awry very quickly as every single character in the book arrives on the garden lawn in quick succession to see what's going on. It's farce, yet, but it's amazingly well-timed and paced: just as the tension from the entrance of one character starts to wane, another one enters and cranks up the action again. Remember a couple weeks ago when I mentioned that The Girl on the Boat didn't quite have its climatic nighttime alarums and excursions scene in the right place? Though I didn't remember it specifically at the time, Joy in the Morning has precisely the right mid-book placement for this scene—ifd it was a five-act Shakespeare comedy this would be Act III. It's one of my favorite scenes in English literature, really—I don't think anyone outside of The Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera twelve years earlier has pulled off such a well-timed escalation of entering characters. Messrs. Groucho et al did it with physical space: dozens of characters jammed into a tiny steamship cabin. On the printed page Wodehouse can't go for precisely that same comedy (I do remember he has fun in steamship cabins in his The Luck of the Bodkins, which I really do need to re-read one of these weeks) so he substitutes the humor of the characters: each acting and reacting to each other and the suspected burglar while Uncle Percy fumes to a boiling point in the background.

Add to all that some of the loveliest Wodehouse passages in print. Go ahead, read some of these aloud, or get some friends to act them out with you—you'll see how lyrically and rhythmically Wodehouse polishes his prose so that it's like, as he would put it, a musical comedy without the music:
'Ah, Jeeves,' I said.

'Good morning, sir,' he responded. 'A lovely day.'

'Lovely for some of us, perhaps, Jeeves,' I said coldly, 'but not for the Last of the Woosters, who, thanks to you, is faced by a binge beside which all former binges fade into insignificance.'

'Sir?'

'It's no good saying 'Sir?' You know perfectly well what I mean. Entirely through your instrumentality, I shall shortly be telling Uncle Percy things about himself which will do something to his knotted and combined locked which at the moment has slipped my memory.'

'Make his knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine, sir.'

'Porpentine?'

'Yes, sir.'

'That can't be right.'
Or, Bertie musing on his Uncle Percy:
...And thought with advancing years our relations had naturally grown more formal, I had never been able to think of him without getting goose pimples. Given the choice between him and a hippogriff as a companion for a walking tour, I would have picked the hippogriff every time.
...whose impatience with Bertie leads to this semantic exchange in which Bertie tries to convince a tipsy Uncle Percy to let Boko marry Nobby:
'He could support Nobby in the style to which she is accustomed.'

'No, he couldn't. Ask me why not.'

'Because I'm jolly well not going to let him.'

'But he loves, Uncle Percy.'

'Has he got an Uncle Percy?'

I saw that unless proper steps were taken, we should be getting muddled.

'When I say he loves, Uncle Percy," I explained, 'I don't mean he loves, verb transitive, Uncle Percy, accusative. I mean he loves, comma, Uncle Percy, exclamation mark.'

Even while uttering the words, I had a fear lest I might be making the thing a shade too complex for one in the relative's condition. And I was right.

'Bertie,' he said, gravely, 'I should have watched you more carefully. You're tighter than I am.'

'No, no.'

'Then just go over that observation of yours again slowly. I would be the last man to dispute that my faculties are a little blurred, but—'

'I only said that he loved, and shoved an "Uncle Percy" at the end of my remarks.'

'Addressing me, you mean?'

'Yes.'

'In the vocative, as it were?'

'That's right.'

'Now we've got it straight. And where does it get us? Just where we were before.'
There's of course the wonderful sight of Jeeves reciting more animal poetry as Bertie parts from him for the nonce:
'I shall miss you, Jeeves.'

'Thank you, sir.'

'Who was the chap who was always beefing about losing gazelles?'

'The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well and love him, it was sure to die.'

'It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?'

'Not at all, sir.'
...but the capper is when Wodehouse makes a callback to an earlier reference that has baffled Bertie:
'...when I think of what will happen if Stilton cops me while I am draped in that uniform, it makes my knotted and combined locks...what was that gag of yours?'

'Part, sir, and each particular hair—'

'Stand on end, wasn't it?'

'Yes, sir. Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.'

'That's right. And that brings me back to it. What the dickens is a porpentine?'

'A porcupine, sir.'

'Oh, a porcupine? Why didn't you say that at first? It's been worrying me all day.'
You've got to excuse me for quoting so much more than I even usually do from a Wodehouse book—there are gems here on every page spread, and I could happily quote until the cows come home. Which reminds and brings me to another interesting observation: this Wodehouse masterpiece just happens to be missing two usual Wodehouse literary tricks and plot devices that usually drive the action: there is no Silver Cow Creamer or the like to be stolen back and forth, and there is no possession or fashion of Bertie's at which Jeeves expresses dislike and withholds the solution to the problem until it is disposed of. They're both wonderful devices, but I think Joy in the Morning surpasses so many of the other Wodehouse comic novels by not needing them. There's physical objects that move the plot along (a signed book, a lost brooch, a policeman's uniform, a burnt-down cottage), but the book is not centered on their existence: everything happens because of the actions and personalities of the characters. Wodehouse's physical prop comedy is wonderful, but here he shows what a transcendent novel he can produce without relying on them. It's sheer joy—one of his most aptly-titled books.



Of course because I love it so, I have more than one edition of Joy in the Morning: a mass market UK Coronet paperback reprint published in the 1970s—badly printed with many typographical errors and missing quote marks, the British Everyman's Wodehouse hardcover uniform edition, a lovely if battered second edition Herbert Jenkins UK hardcover with a vibrant Frank Ford cartoon jacket, but I'm most fond of a dust-jacketless version of the same Herbert Jenkins hardcover (the one I'm reading in the photo). It's battered and bruised and bent. It shows clear signs of having been discarded from its former home in a lending section of Boots the Chemist: a green "Boots Booklovers Library" sticker is mostly still affixed to the front, and there's a small metal-ringed punched hole in the top of the spine. Things with rings through them are dear to my heart, but I especially love this copy because it is the first first edition of Wodehouse I ever bought when I was starting my collection. I remember distinctly buying it in a used bookshop outside Kew Gardens in London during my very first trip there, in 1983. I know as a former lending library book it's had lots of hands on it but I'm very happy it's in my hooves now. It feels like it's home. You can get your own hooves on a copy of Joy in the Morning by clicking on the usual Amazon link to the right. And, if you liked the sound of your own voice when you read the above bits aloud but wished you could do a better British accent, then you might enjoy the BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatization of Joy in the Morning, a three-and-a-half hour radio play with Sir Michael Hordern as Jeeves and Richard Briers as Bertie, one of several Beeb audio adaptations of the Jeeves stories. It's no available in the US, but you can order it from England's Amazon.co.uk here The audio version is almost pitch-perfect—the actor playing Edwin the Boy Scout is an adult woman whose voice gets pretty annoying after a while—but that's a small price to pay for hearing Briers and Hordern in this world of delight.

But whichever you do, or both, or neither, please raise a cup of tea or a gin and tonic with me and salute Mister Wodehouse on his 126th grand birthday. Happy Birthday, Plum—and thanks for all the joy.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


9 comments:

CLM said...

All right, I'm hooked! I don't seem to recall this one at all, so will hunt it up (hunt it down?).

km said...

[hugs little stuffed bull in sheer shared enthusiasm] Perfect, Bully, just perfect.

The only thing I can add is that every time I thought 'Oh, must make sure to mention [classic quote] in my comment' I scrolled down and there it was in the review - the Horror, the gazelles, the hippogriff and the porpentine. Bliss.

The only one still missing is the sequence in which Bertie finds himself unexpectedly in a position to plead for the marriage to his uncle:

"I suppose this was really the moment for embarking upon an impassioned defense of Boko, stressing his admirable qualities. Not being able to think of any, however, I remained silent, and he carried on."

km said...

P.S. - On the subject of audio versions, I need to put in a good word for Jonathan Cecil's pitch-perfect take on all the Jeeves stories - I'm not sure if they're still in print, but I found most at my local library.

Evan Waters said...

Oh, I've read this one! My first exposure to Wodehouse, even. A fine piece of writing, and I think you're on to something about how well constructed it is. It's deceptively simple on the page, but consider how much goes on.

SallyP said...

Ah Bertie, still my one true Wodehouse love. Thank you Bully for reviewing one of my favorite tales, AND Happy Birthday to Mr. Wodehouse!

Smashing!

suedenim said...

Off to the bookseller! Though I suppose he'll probably try to sell me a copy of "Wolverine: Origins" rather than an original Wodehouse. (A wolverine is much like a porpentine, though, I dare say?)

hydrogenguy said...

Terrific, Bully! This is the Wodehouse I'm Most in Want Of, for my collection.

And happy 126th to PGW. And he doesn't look a day over 110.

J.R. Jenks said...

I second km's high opinion of Jonathan Cecil's audio prowess. I've recently been listening to various audio versions of the Jeeves books and Jonathan Cecil's are the best.

Frederick Davidson, by way of contrast, has a croaking style of speaking that doesn't fit the material. In his reading of Jeeves and the Tie that Binds, Davidson's Jeeves voice would be better suited to Tolkein's Sméagol. And his Bertie Wooster voice is imbued with a winking hint of irony which is inappropriate, I think, and is much more distracting than Cecil's sympathetic portrayal of our sincere but mentally negligible protagonist.

Gil said...

Sir Bull,

In my endless searchings of the interwebs, I have uncovered this review of a biography of Wodehouse. I thought you and your dear readers might enjoy it:

http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=12841&IBLOCK_ID=35

And thank you, my bovine absentee-mentor, for introducing me to the wonder of Wodehouse.

Cheers,
The SuperHonky